At the tail end of winter, on a last day of February, along the seaside of Divjaka, somewhere in the dunes, a black stain was visible from afar. The scene resembled a deep no-man’s land and the stain was a small group of people that had arrived from Tirana in the early morning.
The visitors weren’t tourists but they seemed unusual nonetheless. Among them was a Minister of the Republic, Milva Ekonomi, a deputy, Erjon Braçe, some high officials of ministries, and three engineers of the Mabatex company, its founder is considered one of the wealthiest Albanians in the world, Behgjet Pacolli.
While noticing binoculars and maps that engineers were holding, the observer is unaware and unable to tell what is happening in the faraway no-man’s land. Curiosity is alive in the visitors too, but it’s not the same for the Mabatex representatives. They are aware of what is happening.
Three years ago, when the new Albanian government had secured a four-year mandate, Behgjet Pacolli was quick to present his project: building an exclusive touristic resort in the National Park of Divjaka. The park is one of the most protected areas in the country, an international station for migratory birds. This is the only place in the country where a wonderful Mediterranean coniferous forest grows, with wild and tamed pines, and at the heart of it, there is the Lagoon of Karavasta, where another wonder, the curly pelican (Dalmatian pelican) has created its nesting site.
In this fairytale, in the paradise that shelters the highest concentration of birds, 89 species are at risk, while the government is trying to build a resort with massive dimensions. This is the reason that a group of state officials are gathered in the Lagoon, in the freezing morning.
A few days later, in Tirana, a group of environmentalists, biologist, and scientists submitted a letter to Minister of Environment Lefter Koka. Twelve organizations and a group of experts had come to a conclusion: the resort affects the territory and the values of the park. It violates the laws and management plans created in compliance with the protected area.
“If it is approved, all the effort to protect the park will equal zero,” says Sajmir Hoxha, specialist in nature and biodiversity.
“The execution of this project transforms the natural environment into an urban place,” says Taulant Bino, ecologist and professor at Polis University.
The reaction was expected and maybe purposely the procedures of transparency were violated. A number interested groups were not notified on time about a public meeting on March 17, where environmental strategies were discussed. Others were not informed. Now, under pressure, the Ministry of Environment has announced a second date: April 6, 2017, 12:00.
The environmentalists are waiting for the technical details of the project. There is no news on the Ministry’s website except the picture of Minister Koka and his cabinet. Bilateral meetings and environmental propaganda, even though useless, are not missing, however.
You have to be a skilled web researcher to squeeze out at least a bit of information on Resort Divjaka Albania.
The public must know that a touristic resort will be built in the National Park of Divjaka, with a surface of 1170 sq.m. and a tourist capacity at 18,280 people. The beach, pine woods, agricultural lands, and lagoons take up two thirds of the surface and would be the focus of foreign investments from international companies worth €1.5 billion.
The central part of the park is protected by the International Ramstar Convention, while the entire territory is part of the Emerald ring. The law for protected areas does not allow the exploitation of land or interventions with the intensity predicted in this project application.
The government has not refused the proposition of this tempting project. The project even has its own environmental defenders that are hired by Mabatex and they are in its favor.
Prof. Dr. Sulejman Sulçe, from the Agricultural University, is hired by Mabatex and declares that “in the final analysis, considering all elements of social and economic benefits in rapport with environmental interests, it is clear that the project is doable and acceptable.”
Furthermore, the specialist mentions conditions and restrictions necessary for the builders, such as the height, distance, and intensity of buildings.
Sajmir Hoxha is an expert who has contributed in the drafting of laws for protected areas and co-designer of several plans for park management; he is strict and straightforward: “Massive constructions will affect the area. The road that will be build to transport people will totally damage the park. The construction of the electricity network will destroy the area. Building a motorboat harbor in the area will also destroy the National Park.”
Jamarbër Malltezi, is an opponent of the environmental politics applied from the government. He was one of the first environmentalists that opposed the project. But he changed his mind later.
“Because the first plan was totally changed in order to respect the functional area,” he says.
Malltezi is part of a team of experts that was contacted by Mabatex to evaluate the consistency of the master plan with environmental restrictions.
His criticism of “a hidden project” were substituted with a conditional development of the project: “If this big project will evolve, it will need thorough and deep research and international studios will be involved to conduct some of the detailed research outside of Albania.”
Behgjet Pacolli is one of the few Kosovars who profited from the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The financial success of Mabatex, the company he established in Switzerland in 1990, was a result of the fall of USSR and its integration in the free market economy.
The new Kremlin and Mabatex signed some million dollar contracts for the restoration of the former palace of the czars. The company restored the Office of President Jeltsin, valued at $350 million. Scandals followed the millions.
The Office of Persecutor in Switzerland raided Mabatex’s offices in 1999 and seized a credit card that held $11 million on its account. The card belonged to the daughter of President Boris Jeltsin.
The scandal erupted in Russia but an officer of secret services defended the presidential family. The investigations failed and the FSB spy gained the personal esteem of the president. But this was only the beginning. A year later, on May 7, the former officer of Secret Services, Vladimir Putin, was sworn in as the new president of Russia, in the same office that Mabatex had reconstructed. Vladimir Putin had himself halted investigations on Mabatex. The compensation had come full circle.
Last October, Behgjet Pacolli spoke publicly about Resort Divjaka Albania in the TV show Opinion, where he admitted that Russian businessmen would be possible investors in the project.
This exchange of interests could renew the relationship with the former officer of the Secret Services who has ruled Russia for nearly two decades and could be a really valuable collaboration, given that Russia suffers from the USA’s sanctions.
Pacolli isn’t alone. If you take a peek at the website of Russian Embassy in Tirana, the contacts of Albanian businessmen with the Russian administration have increased. Samir Mane, president and founder of Balfin Group, a private company with yearly revenue valued at $500 million, is one of them. He owns strategic concessions around the country and few days ago he met with the Russian ambassador. Similar meetings have become more frequent during the last weeks. Public declarations admit that the preferred area of collaboration remains investment is tourism.
A week ago, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov opposed the Western paranoia that Russia would be “invading” the Balkans, but confirmed that they “see common interests with the states in the region.”
Russian investments in the Balkans, however, do not agree with the interests of the US State Department. In a country that is part of NATO and deeply pro-American this enterprise is truly courageous.
Beyond barriers erected and sanctions, the concern remains: what kind of money is being invested?
If you leafed through decisions reached by the government in the last months, you would discover an explosive situation. Through expressions such as “removal from forest and grazing fund” or a “decrease in volume” the authorities have been removing protection from thousands of hectares of forest, and have issued dozens of licenses for the exploitation of minerals. Thanks to this “charity” private initiatives are damaging the environment and its river beds, seashores, and forests.
Twenty kilometers above the northern edge of the Karavasta lagoon the government has allowed the creation of a free economic zone that includes the construction of a huge port that allows big commercial ships to enter, as well as a natural gas terminal and power plant. The agreement was approved from the Parliament with a special law.
Until 2020, 15 kilometers away from the southern edge of the lagoon, gas transportation pipes of TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline) will supply Europe through Adriatic route. A station for gas compression will be built nearby.
In the name of development, nature is up for auction.
“Protected areas are under pressure,” says environmental specialist Sajmir Hoxha. “We aren’t trying to protect all of Albania, obviously, but in Divjaka let us give the citizens the economy they want; they want the day-trip tourism, small restaurants, fishing on rowing boats, and everything that is in harmony with the park.”
In the Garden of Eden inside the lagoon, unwanted visitors have arrived. The engineers of Mabatex, with maps and binoculars, have another perspective. Behind them are bulldozers, technology, development… The calmness of local residents who have lived in harmony with nature for centuries, risks being suddenly destroyed .
And like in the famous Avatar of Cameron, they could respond with anger against this forced “development.” With the sole difference that the enemy is not coming from outside. The enemy is us.